Filmmaker Vac Verikaitis offers unique perspective on poverty

Posted on October 28, 2012 in Inclusion Debates

Source: — Authors: – news/gta
October 27, 2012.   Jim Coyle, Feature Writer

The most powerful images in Vac Verikaitis’s short film on his fall from life as globetrotting producer to impoverished resident of a Toronto shelter come in the eyes of passersby.

In several shots, Verikaitis stands on city sidewalks as if invisible to those still a part of its bustle, pleasures and possibility.

In some, he is implicitly eyed with gazes suggesting wariness, or disdain, or the sort of fleeting — if disgusted — curiosity bestowed on a peculiar species of insect.

Very likely, most of us have issued such looks, probably without knowing it.

In his film How Can a Warm Man Understand a Cold Man, Verikaitis’s goal was to convey a sense of what it’s like on the receiving end. The hope-sapping loneliness and soul-straitening isolation of what poverty feels like.

“I feel excluded to the point where I don’t even recognize the world in which I live,” he told the Star. “It’s a pretty lonely feeling and I’ve tried to show that in the film.

“Everyone who lives in poverty understands that. Maybe they can’t express it or articulate it in the way that I can. But they certainly feel it.”

He also wanted to show the frailty of social standing — how a job loss, divorce, addiction, bout of bad luck or bad decisions can change everything, and pretty quickly.

The film was commissioned by TVO, part of its multi-platform Why Poverty? campaign launched this month in conjunction with the United Nations’ International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

Ontario’s public-education media organization is one of 70 broadcasters taking part in a global campaign expected to reach an audience of 500 million people, to trigger international debate and inspire solutions.

Given his background, Verikaitis is an apt choice to tell this particular story. For the same reasons, and perhaps unwittingly, he’s an example of how complex and confounding the challenge of eradicating poverty can be.

Verikaitis will be 55 on Saturday. He was born to Lithuanian parents who fled Europe to escape Stalin.

As a young man, Verikaitis did not lack for ambition, talent, chutzpah or work ethic.

He worked at a supermarket, was a union steward in his teens. He played soccer in the old National Soccer League and dreamt of a professional career. After graduating from Ryerson in 1982, he began doing work for the old channel 47, precursor to Omni TV.

He would collect scores from England for screening at halftime. One Saturday, bad weather wiped out the games in Europe. There was air time to fill. Young Vac Verikaitis volunteered.

He was soon co-hosting a program called World Soccer Report, became a day-oner at TSN, eventually covered World Cups abroad, then worked in London producing programming on Formula 1 motor racing.

Back in Canada he freelanced for a while, worked at the CBC, then back to CFMT until 2004. Then he went to Argentina for a few months. “I just wanted to get away.”

And that’s when the unravelling began in earnest.

Along the way, he’d married his high-school sweetheart, with whom he had three daughters. They divorced in 1995.

He also travelled a self-destructive, but well-worn road.

“In the ’80s, you’re in the entertainment industry, and everybody’s doing blow. Then you start drinking. Then you start travelling around the world.

“You’ve got a beautiful wife. You’ve got your kids at home. And you’re in some far-off capital and you’ve got a pocketful of cocaine and an American Express card that the company gave you.

“You think you’re invulnerable. And your ego and your arrogance, this hubris that you have. . .I take full responsibility for everything that I’ve done. I did it myself.

“I was really, really, really bad in the mid-’90s. When we came back from England, that’s when things just started to fall apart and that’s why I got divorced. By ’95, I was doing a gram and a half of blow, drinking a litre of vodka a day — but I was also working three jobs.”

By the time he got back from Argentina, however, the TV landscape — like all media — had changed. Verikaitis couldn’t find work. In 2006, he found himself living in the Evangel Hall Mission at Bathurst and Adelaide, where he remains today.

Then a few years ago, he got fleeced, he said, by a partner in a documentary series he helped produced and he fell into profound depression.

“I didn’t feel like I was part of anything anymore. I didn’t feel like I was part of the world.”

Even so, he had been blogging while looking for work. He learned from an old cameraman colleague he bumped into that TVO was planning a poverty series. He was intrigued.

“How can I get involved in doing this,” he wondered. “I’m living in poverty. Shouldn’t my perspective be the most authentic one?”

Out of the blue, he got a call from Danielle Crittenden, who’d read some of his blog. She invited him to lunch, referred him to a TVO producer and he was commissioned to make his film.

Not everyone living in poverty has entrée to the level of the media-politico complex at which Crittenden and her husband David Frum dwell.

But not everyone has the rare mix of firsthand experience of being down-and-out and the filmmaking skills that Verikaitis does.

Usually, he said, media come down to the mean streets, talk to the homeless person and drive cheerfully away.

“I know exactly the internal struggles and mindset, because at the heart of poverty it’s not just about social injustice. More importantly, it’s about social exclusion.”

He completed the film in 40 days, delivered it Oct. 1.

Still, Verikaitis remains of a mindset that is as common among those who share his afflictions as it is vexing to those trying to treat them.

He says it’s been a year since he’s touched cocaine. “I still drink, but you’ll never see me drunk. I’ve managed to control that.”

He doesn’t like 12-step recovery programs. “I do not want to be there.” Nor does he like the antidepressants he’s had prescribed. “Make you feel like a zombie.”

He regularly sees a couple of priests, he says, has found solace in the church and recovery in a spiritual life.

What the film has given him is renewed faith in his creative abilities. Proving he still has the ability to produce “gave me a lot of confidence.”

It is hope’s absence that’s “the greatest fallout of living in poverty,” he said.

And his hope now is that the descent he bravely chronicles was not merely the painful precursor to a lonely, miserable end, but the necessary prologue to a redemption story.

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